Do your family a favor and plan your estate

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SHUTTERSTOCK More than 60% of Americans don't have a will, a recent poll finds.

IT HAS BEEN 18 months since my mother died, and we are finally close to settling her estate. It hasn't been easy. My mother had refused to get a will and so, in addition to dealing with her death, my sister and I had to sort through the financial chaos she left behind.

I don't think my mother, had she understood the toll it would take on us, would have wanted to leave things as she did. But our story isn't unusual. Recently I received another cautionary tale about the lack of estate planning from a reader who called herself a "disinherited daughter."

Here's the backstory: She is an only child, and is married with three young children. She and her husband struggled financially. Her mother died suddenly at 58. But before her mother's death, her maternal grandmother had left her parents $2 million. They shared some of that with her.

"They paid off . . . our mortgage, for which we are deeply grateful," she wrote.

Now here's the estate drama that followed: The reader said her parents promised additional financial assistance. "They often said our children's college education was assured, as were nice vacations and a larger home, but never took steps to put any of this in action."

Then, after her mother died, her father remarried.

"He added his new wife's name to his home and some other assets, and died without making a will," the daughter wrote. "We were left with nothing."

His new wife inherited the entire estate.

"Some states divide the estate between the spouse and any children, or parents if they are still living, but not ours," the reader wrote.

So the "disinherited daughter" tried making an emotional appeal to her stepmother for a different division of assets, despite state law.

"When we politely asked his widow to consider funding some of our needs, she replied, 'Why should I?' She has five children of her own and flat-out admitted to my uncle that she had married my father in part to provide financial security for herself and her children."

The lesson: "I realize it's too late for us, but others potentially in this situation should take steps to avoid it. The hardest thing, of course, is losing my parents, but I don't think they would have wanted this result."

We will never know what her father wanted. Maybe he did intend to leave everything to his widow and stepchildren and didn't have the courage to tell his daughter that his priorities had shifted. Maybe he felt she had already received a significant part of his estate when he paid off her mortgage.

If you find yourself out of an inheritance because there was no will, don't transfer your anger, disappointment or hurt to heirs who do get the assets. You have to find peace with the fact that if the deceased wanted a different outcome, he or she should have taken the time to make it so. For that reason, I can't judge the widow for not sharing her inheritance.

I do take some issue with the daughter feeling that she was left with nothing. Her parents gave her and their son-in-law a tremendous gift. Mortgage-free, they should have - absent some major financial issue - a significant amount of money available to save and pay off any other debts.

When I talk to folks about estate planning, I ask them to guess what percentage of people die without a will.

What's your guess?

Sixty-four percent of Americans don't have a will, according to a recent online Harris poll for Rocket Lawyer. For the 45-to-64 age group, it was 70 percent.

The reality is if you die without a will (legally, it's referred to as dying "intestate"), state law dictates the disposition of your property. So in many respects, we all have a will imposed on us if we don't do estate planning of our own. Here's a link (http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/intestate-succession) where you can see, according to your state's law, who is entitled to your assets if you die without creating a will.

The Rocket Lawyer poll found that one of the top reasons people give for not having drawn up a will is that they just haven't gotten around to it. OK, fair enough. I can understand that you would rather binge-watch your favorite television shows than plan for your death.

But many families are torn apart because someone didn't take the time to put his or her financial affairs in order. It's sad that many family feuds start at the end of someone's life.